Sunday, October 01, 2006

8. The Immigration Debate: Thinking Beyond "LEARN to speak ENGLISH."

Recently, my mother called me about an obnoxious editorial in the local newspaper from our old hometown, The Beloit Call. Because she also works with immigrants and their children in the nearby Great Bend School District, she was upset almost to the point of tears. Naturally, I volunteered to respond:

Dear Editor,
While I appreciated the emotional honesty of Charlene Watson in her Sept. 18, 2006 Ramblings, I was dismayed by the huge amount of misinformation Ms. Watson conveyed. Unfortunately, much of the debate I have heard over immigration policy has been just as disconnected from the reality of the clients I have served as a bilingual attorney. I have met hundreds of Spanish-speaking families in the last several years, including both legal and undocumented immigrants. It would be wrong of me to characterize all members of any group—much less all undocumented immigrants in our country. But I can say that most I have met are hardworking, kind, generous, devoted to family, and entrepreneurial. Many are deeply religious.
Recently, I began asking my clients why they came here. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t to get drivers licenses, college education, public benefits, or health care. Nor was it to “intimidate” Americans or to “take over our country.” Everyone answers the same—they came to work. And work they do—many in jobs that simply aren’t being filled otherwise. The reality is that we simply do not have enough workers to fill all the labor-intensive jobs that are out there. Some California farmers are losing entire crops for lack of workers to harvest them. Entire industries—construction, hospitality, service, meat packing, landscaping, and some sectors of agriculture—depend on immigrant labor.
Ms. Watson expressed concern over Social Security. The reality is that many undocumented workers are doing the work to earn Social Security credits, but those credits are applied to other people’s numbers. While this creates a record-keeping problem, it pours millions of dollars into the system which will never be collected by the workers who did the work. Take those workers and their contributions out, and you will speed the collapse of Social Security. Add a few million otherwise law-abiding younger workers to the system, and you could probably save it.
Ms. Watson claimed the influx of European immigrants of the 1900s were much different from today’s immigrants. In reality, earlier immigrant groups were similarly attacked and maligned. It is well known that many worked long hours in dangerous conditions. Just like immigrants of today, many were exploited. Are we proud of this? Ms. Watson praises the notion that today’s immigrants “HAVE no rights in this country.” In reality, they do. They have the right to be paid for work they have actually done, to work in safe conditions, and in some cases to sue those who have wronged them. Would Ms. Watson prefer an America where this were not so? I recently sued a construction subcontractor who cheated my client and about 50 others out of several weeks pay for labor performed at Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kansas. If contractors like this can get away with not paying these workers, what kind of workers will they be more likely to hire on the next project? Allowing immigrant workers to be exploited simply gives employers an economic incentive to hire them instead of domestic workers.
Ms. Watson repeatedly emphasized the need for immigrants to “LEARN to speak ENGLISH.” In reality, there is certainly no lack of desire from my clients. Better English skills mean better work opportunities and less risk of being exploited. The rate of English-learning among recent immigrants is no different than that of immigrants in the past. Generally, the older first-generation adults struggle and the second generation children pick up English rapidly at school. Most adults would love to speak more English, but either don’t have time to take classes because of long work hours or can’t find enough English classes to meet the adult demand.
While Ms. Watson claimed past immigrants “did not expect this country to meet their needs,” I am certain my ancestors at least expected that there would be enough opportunity to make a better life. Were their motives so different from those of today’s immigrants? As for handouts, most of my clients are not interested. Most aren’t eligible for public benefits anyway, so they expect none.
What Ms. Watson fails to address is why illegal immigration is happening in the first place. This isn’t an American issue—France, Spain, and many other nations are facing similar debates. So what’s going on? The answer was in Ms. Watson’s hands as she complained over instructions printed in multiple languages: Globalization is affecting business and lives all over the world. Many products sold here are sold in other countries too. If companies want higher sales overseas, they have to make their products and services available internationally. When traveling abroad, one can find U.S. companies—Subway, Sam’s Club, and Home Depot—competing with local businesses. For better or worse, free trade agreements like NAFTA created winners and losers. Some of the losers—like Mexican subsistence farmers who couldn’t compete with foreign agribusiness—are now working on American farms, construction sites, hotels, and yes, McDonalds. We love getting to sell our products elsewhere, but are somehow shocked that this should ever have consequences felt here at home.
There is one clear difference between immigrants of yesterday and today: Back then, most of our ancestors had almost no immigration restrictions on the books to be concerned with. By contrast, today’s immigration laws have broken up thousands of good families that were formed here in America—far more than any other “family values” issue typically raised at election time. Instead of attacking immigrants and destroying families, we should be supporting immigration reform based on America’s best interests, not on fear and misinformation.